Days without pictures: Ushuaia

We had a super winter adventure yesterday in the Torres del Paine national park. It was overcast but the weather held out and we got to see some beautiful things. (Post about that to come at a later date… 😉

We timed things right. Today it’s nasty out which is just perfect for us. Full license to have a lazy/admin type Sunday in our wonderfully cozy temporary home here in Puerto Natales. The snow and slush are coming down outside. The wood stove is clicking and creaking gently as the fire burns inside. There are plans afoot to cook a curry for dinner at home with the owners of the B&B. I’m a happy girl.

Some snaps from right now, here in Chile…

 

And in the mean time, there’s a chance to finally catch up on some blogging…

So leaving Chile for now to return to our last stop in Argentina, Ushuaia… We had a total of four days there. The first day was a recovery day. Although I thought I had factored in plenty of time to do everything we needed and wanted to fit in prior to our departure from Buenos Aires, inevitably there was too much to do and too little time – how does this ALWAYS happen?? – and our last days there were busy, busy, busy and of course we got the minimal amount of sleep on our last night. So Saturday, our first day in Ushuaia, was all about recovery – relaxing, getting organized and gathering energy for the next four days.

We’ve been traveling for ages now and I’ve learned that it’s good for me to take a break from photography from time to time. I’ve got more pictures than my laptop has space for anyhow, and it DOES change your experience of a place when your more focused on just being there, rather than being behind the lens.

So there are days that I leave the camera behind, and I am always happy when I do. But Ushuaia was different.

We only had four days there, I was head over heels in love with the place, and God was it beautiful. I wanted to photograph EVERYTHING. And in my defense, we have seen and done so much on this trip. Capturing images are a great way to jog your memory later on, to help bring you back to a place and an experience. And Ushuaia is definitely a place I want to remember clearly.

But I also wanted my camera to survive the visit, which means that it got left behind, much to my chagrin, during our winter sport outings.

So, here are some verbal snap shots from my days without pictures (supplemented with some of Roman’s pics – his camera is pocket-sized and therefore much more portable! :-))

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 1: dog sledding

We are picked up by our tour operator and drive out of the city. Any buildings disappear pretty quickly as soon as we reach the city limits, and the views outside the fogged windows are replaced by nature. Snowy woods, pristine mountains. I wrote earlier that Tierra del Fuego looks like a landscape out of a fantasy movie, and today I narrow things down: it feels like I am entering the eternal winter of Narnia.

We come to the lodge where the dogs and sleds are. Inside is piping hot, with wood fires blazing in every room. Next to one a grey cat is stretched on a couch, napping. We are out all day and I swear it hasn’t moved an inch when we come back later in the afternoon.

The crew is organizing the sled and us tourists; Roman and I get to meet the dogs. Siberian and Alaskan huskies. It was awesome to learn about them and they were soooo cuddly and sweet. Apparently they don’t get along so well with each other, and the sled teams have to be carefully arranged – pairs are made up of a male and female dog for example, and order is determined by personality – to ensure fights don’t break out.  But they are tremendously sweet and affectionate with humans, and we got down to petting them every chance we got. The team of the second sled was younger dogs – teen agers – and they acted the part, barking and howling, a lot of talking with not much to say – while our team sat around with quiet dignity in the snow, waiting to get going.

 

Thank you Roman for sharing your pics with me. 😉 The dogs had the most amazing eyes. A lot of them had two different colored eyes. Gorgeous!

The sledding was fun – except for when a dog stopped for a bathroom break. If you ever find yourself traveling by dog sled and you see a dog stop to drop a load, make sure you hold your breath when the sled starts moving again. Husky poo is potent and you don’t want to breath in a cloud of it, trust me on this.

What a sweet face!

We sled along into the woods until my feet and cheeks are just about frozen with the cold, and then it’s time for…

Ushuaia winter wonderland number 2: snow shoeing

I’ve snow shoed before once, with Roman’s mom and step-dad back in the Swiss mountains. That was an awesome experience, so I’m so excited to have the chance to try it again.

There’s a lot of standing around, trying to stamp feeling back in to my feet, as everyone in the group gets kitted up with shoes. Finally we are off, and at first I am underwhelmed as we move slowly through flat forest. Eventually, our quiet but kind guide turns off the flat path and we start to head up hill. It feels good to use my body. The blood starts to pump and I find a rhythm to my pace. My footsteps in the crisp snow are like a yeti systematically making his way through a lifetime supply of Captain Crunch cereal. Up, up, up we go through the hilly woods. I start to forget my frozen toes and notice little details.

The delicate tendrils of sage green moss on the trees. Naked, knobbly, symmetric branches forming vivid patterns above the snow. Small but hardy leaves on bushes, spikey and defiant. The color of the snow. It is thick, pristine and white, but where crevices form – fine cracks that run inches deep along the side of the path – there is a subtle glow of the most pure aquamarine, as if snow and cold were the birthplace of blue.

We come to a clearing and that magic moment happens, when the work of my body has warmed my blood and the heat zooms down to my toes all at once. I love this feeling and savor it as we take in the view that stretches for miles before us. The valley down below, the ranges of mountains reaching out in either direction behind it. Stunning views. This place really is magic.

Then it’s time to head back down. We return to the woods in the valley where a small wooden hut has a fire, hot cocoa and cake waiting for us. Cheeky birds, like sparrows but with vivid yellow breasts, sneak in through the cracks and jauntily land on the table, the cake, claiming it as their own. We laugh and watch them flit about, and take another round communing with the huskies outside before heading back to the lodge and returning to town. An awesome day!

I loved this collection of colorful lanterns back at the lodge. Roman kindly let me steal is camera… 🙂

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Buenos Aires bookends

Today has been our last full day in Buenos Aires.

A full day – we’ve been going since we got up and there will be an early start tomorrow morning to do the rest of the packing, hand back the keys to our temporary home and go through the process to get onto the plane that will fly us down to Ushuaia.

A full day, sometimes a challenging day, a good day.

A grey day – over cast and sometimes rainy. Which I liked.

Our first week here there was nothing but grey, and it feels fitting that we end our time in BA the way it started. Meteorological bookends to a place. I like the symmetry.

Maybe it sounds dramatic but I guess things are feeling a tad dramatic. I’ve been pretty emotional the past couple of days. It’s not unheard of for me to get all nostalgic about a place as it comes time to leave it on this trip, even as we are still there.

Will we ever see this city again? And it’s been temporarily home and now it’s time to uproot yet again and move once more into the unknown. All that sort of stuff.

But I’ve gotten better at it with time. Especially in this second half of the journey, I’ve been filled with momentum and more tuned in to gratitude and the hunger for more adventure has been sustaining and inspiring me through having to saying goodbye to a place.

But this time round the emotions are in full force. Everything feels more intense as awareness of the end to the big journey increases. As well, this little apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires, is the longest place Roman and I have had been able to call (temporary) home since we left Zürich a year and nine months ago. And Buenos Aires and I have had to go through a process. From that pretty tough first week when I was really wondering what the heck we were doing here to now, where the city has been transformed in my eyes to a place full of rough beauty and soooo many things I would love to do, if only we had more time…

I am greedy; I always want more. But I am trying to learn how to be satisfied with what is, and so I will just enjoy the symmetry of my rainy days and focus on some details of BA that I’ve savored during my time here, with the addition of the one little rant.

BA – what I hate

Oh my God I hate the dog crap all over the place. It is everywhere and it is awful. You know when you were a kid and you played that game where you couldn’t step on a crack in the street and you’d be jumping all over the place as you walk? It’s like that here except everyone is maneuvering to NOT step on the poo. Some streets are better but some streets are worse and you cannot drop your guard. Some streets stink of it and you have to watch not to accidentally open your mouth ever cause you might just get a mouthful of poop-flavored air. I would rather walk in a cloud of Roman’s second hand cigarette smoke than breathe in poo-air, it’s that awful. Seriously, people of Buenos Aires, do not own dogs if you can’t or won’t pick up after them!!!! It’s just not right.

You see something like this in the street and you know someone’s day just got worse when they walked here….

BA – just some of what I love

Caca de perro was definitely one of the things I noticed first about BA, but thankfully, many other things joined the symphony of the city and managed to do a decent job drowning out that particular “instrument”. Once you get over the poo, or at least get adept at side stepping to avoid it, there are so many lovely details to appreciate. Here are just some of the little things I’ve collected and enjoyed while we’ve been here:

–       There are islands of good smells on the streets to counteract the poo. Small fruit and vegetable shops opening up to the sidewalk and street-side florists with stands bursting full of gorgeous blooms are all over the place and I love walking through the fresh, lovely smells and taking in the burst of bright colors while walking through BA’s streets.

–       Walking home from yoga. I take a different zig-zag to get back just about every time and I love discovering new streets, shops, views each time.

My favorite cobblestone alleyway on the way to/from yoga

–       All the PDA in the street! I love the young couples making out in public. This is still such a thrill for me since Asia is way conservative about that sort of thing and it was so tough for me to have to watch my actions with Roman while we traveled there. I love it that I can kiss, hug or hold hands with him when ever I feel like it, and that other people can – and do! – too.

–       I love the old American and European cars! There are plenty of standard modern cars all over the place but there are also all sorts of rusty gems – Fords, Citroens, Fiats – clunking along the city streets and I think they’re awesome.

–       No pictures of this but I love how the slanty light of mid morning or later afternoon filters through the arched roof of tree branches hanging over the city’s streets. Just gorgeous.

–       I love the street art!
Yes, that’s Alf

–       The awesome old-timey elevators with the accordion doors you have to pull closed before you can ascend/decent. The nifty apartment doorbells. The funky keys.

What a classy doorbell system!

Our apartment key, like some sort of mini steam punk machine gun

–       Cheap and delicious wine!

–       The way the people here sing along with the music in their headphones while walking.

–       Beautiful sunsets from our apartment window.

I’m sure there’s more to add to this list, but it’s bedtime now – tomorrow is a new adventure! Good night folks! 🙂

What a difference a week makes

And glorious sunshine, and a good amount of yoga!

Last time I posted, I was feeling pretty downtrodden by our first seven days here in Buenos Aires. Happily, the weather took a turn for the better this past Tuesday, and my mood, along with the city itself, is much lighter as a result. All the locals we’ve chatted with seem to have been similarly depressed by the rain; typically Fall in BA is much more like this past week – crisp, sunny, invigorating. Since the weather has improved, I’ve been loving the cool morning walks to Spanish class and the play of autumn sunshine across the wonderful mix of architecture old and new, and I’m starting to discover why and how people get enchanted by this city.

Here are some random impressions and experiences from the past week.

–       I talked in my last post about the fashion sensibilities of the young porteñas in the city. I’ve noticed too that the older generation – 60 and above – tend to dress with an awful lot of panache and I adore seeing the elegant older women in refined, well-tailored fall colors, the men with small moustaches, stylish blazers and dashing neckerchiefs wandering around the streets of our neighborhood.

–       I don’t want to jinx things, but I seem to be developing a knack for avoiding the dog poop (caca de perro) on sidewalks. Knock on wood – I haven’t stepped on any since arriving and I’m even starting to get a kick out of what Roman and I are terming the “dog trains” that trundle along the sidewalks here. Imagine a single dog walker as the spoke in a wheel made up of at least ten leashed dogs, from pocket dogs to great big labs and everything in-between. Now picture this moving down the street at a good clip, and the millipede effect of all those legs trotting along at once. Quite a sight, and there are tons of them, in our neighborhood at least.

–       BA is great for trees! I love, love, love how many streets are covered by an arching canopy of branches that reach up and over from opposite sidewalks to touch hands high above the traffic. Especially gorgeous when sunshine filters through the branches. Photos to follow one of these days… In the mean time, here’s a whole blog devoted to the subject: http://losarbolesdebuenosaires.blogspot.com.ar/2009/03/tipa-trees.html

–       There are some not-so-good smells in the city for sure (reference the previous dog poop item) but there are good smells too. Our little corner almost always smells like the fragrant smoke from a barbeque, which makes me hungry. Need to find out which restaurant this smell is coming from. 🙂 I love passing by the little cave-like meet-cheese-and-wine shops and getting a whiff of the evocative, musty, cloistered smell that wafts out of the open door.

–       I am loving our Spanish classes! I’m the only beginner student at our school at the moment (it’s low season), so I’ve been having one-on-one sessions with my teacher and I’m amazed how much ground we’ve covered in just one week. We’re at Vamos Spanish, in case you’re interested, and Roman’s been really happy with his intermediate class too. Friendly, highly competent staff, good value for money, nice location – based on our first week we can definitely recommend this place. 🙂

–       We got to experience a protest! We were at home one night when I thought I heard some weird noises coming from the apartments next door. I went onto the balcony to check it out, and the racket only escalated. Cars honked, pedestrians clapped, and people all over the neighborhood stood on their balconies and leaned out their windows, hitting pots and pans, whistling and blowing on vuvuzelas. We were baffled but intrigued and delighted. Take a listen and maybe you can see why we were initially confused: Palermo 31 May. The event went on for about an hour, and we found out when we went for drinks with our “landlady” (the woman we are renting from on Airb’n’b. She’s a total sweetheart) later that night that it was a protest against the government. Here’s a bit more info about it if you’re interested. There was a second round the next night, and I have to say it’s been pretty amazing to see so many people participating in something like this.

–       I’ve found a yoga studio. It’s in the neighborhood, is teenie-tiny but cute, is staffed by Americans and the classes are all in English. Bad for my Spanish practice maybe but oh so good for my state of mind and my out-of-shape body. I’ve been going just about every other day and as per usual, a regular practice just makes everything better. Thank goodness for yoga. Another definite recommendations: http://www.happysunyoga.com/

And, just for good measure, here’s a few photos to visually whet your whistle for Beunos Aires. 🙂

In the touristy but still awesome section of La Boca

In Boca

Around San Telmo

This guy’s got it going on!

Silk Road Tour day two: Part one

After our cold but amazing stay at Karakul Lake, it was time to hit the road again. We were heading to Tashkurgan, a small mountain town and another stop along the historical Silk Road. The Karakorum Highway had some more treats in store for us however before we would arrive there.

As with the first day, Yusef stopped the car any time there was something interesting to see. Just shortly after departing, we came across a vast pasture filled with grazing yaks. Our first official yak sighting!

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A baby yak. So fuzzy!!

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More of those massive yellow trucks thundering past the pasture

There is a lot of mining taking place in Xinjiang. Apparently the mountains contain gold, iron, brass and copper (source: Yusef). This was one of many mountains we passed along the way that bore the scars of mining.

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We stopped to take in the view of some amazing mountain glaciers in the far distance.

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Massive glaciers. Just amazing!

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Our car and a whole lot of nature – felt like we were the only humans for miles around!

Another beautiful scene from my car window.

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At one point we made a rest-room stop, and I encountered the most simple toilet I’ve come across yet on our big trip. Although clearly not simple enough since some earlier visitor failed to use it correctly (yes, that is what you think it is)…

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One wedding and a funeral

At one point we drove past a small village. Yusef noticed a large-ish number of cars parked in front of one house. He said something to Driver and suddenly we were near-off-roading it across a narrow, bumpy dirt path towards the gathering.

Yusef explained that this was a Tajik town and that he thought this might be a wedding. Tajik people, he told us, are either very friendly, or very crazy, so as long as this particular Tajiks were the former, we should be fine. But Roman and I had better wait in the car until he ascertained the situation. Hm. 😉

He hopped out and approached a stony-faced group of men. Roman and I began speculating if and how soon he might get punched. Soon he was hurrying back to the car. Half laughing, he hopped back into the passenger seat. “This is a funeral!” Well, I guess that explains the serious looking men. “But there is a wedding on the other side of town!,” he proudly announced. And off we drove across the bumpy track, to the other side of town where there was in fact a much larger, much more cheerful looking group of people assembled.

Roman and I felt awkward about gate crashing, but Yusef assured us, after asking around, that we were absolutely welcome. Indeed, the people we met were totally lovely. It turned out we were there on the first day of the festivities. The actual wedding and the real party was the next day and in the end we got invited to return and take part in the festivities. If only we had more time in Xinjiang! 🙂 It was awesome though to be able to see at least a little glimpse of the Tajik wedding ceremony.

I was able to join a big group of women in a yurt where sweets were being eaten. Yusef had told us we could take photos of anything and everything. I felt hesitant at first but then the women actually asked me to take pictures of them. I wasn’t allowed to leave the yurt until each and every one of them had been photographed and each snap had been thoroughly laughed over. 🙂 Here are just a couple of the photos I took. (The women look relatively serious, but they would burst into giggles once the photo had been taken. 🙂 )

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Afterwards, Yusef led us to a yard behind the buildings where a sheep and a goat were being prepared for the wedding feast. We had missed the slaughter (thank God) but were in time to watch the butchery. Steam was still rising from the bodies; the eyes of the heads (still attached), were still open. With quick efficiency the men removed organs, cut bone away from bone. I was amazed at the astounding brevity in which a living, breathing creature is transformed, reduced to composite parts organized by their usefulness to man.

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We got to meet the bride; she was sweet but I think probably too busy taking in the whole wedding thing to interact with us much. The groom was arriving the next day for the ceremony.

Outside, we watched the crowd that had gathered to witness the gift giving. Traditional gifts to newlyweds are bedding. Lots and lots of bedding – blankets, mats, cushions – to flesh out the new home/yurt. Seems like this couple would have enough to set up 50 yurts!

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Gifts piled high inside one of the houses

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A few of the women watching the gift giving

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Some women take a break from the crowd. Take a look at the background – this little village was really in the middle of no where! So awesome that we got to visit it!

Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

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Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

In the land of the gods

We were in Goa for my birthday and I may write more about that later. Suffice to say, for now, that it was a perfectly lovely beach break and I had a great birthday. 🙂
We are going to be on the move soon though, and before I am distracted by our next stop, I want to write a bit about where we are now. After Goa, we’ve spent five days in the out-of-the-way town of Hampi and its surrounding landscape in the state of Karnataka.
My head is still swimming with all we saw; I feel like words can’t fully capture all the sights and impressions from the past days. I almost want to let the pictures speak for themselves, but looking over my numerous photos, none of them seem to do justice to the rich atmosphere of the town, temples and historical sights or the majesty of the landscape. I’ll try to do the best with what I have. 🙂
To give a bit of historical context (if my memory from our tour serves – please don’t quote me on any of this!), for over two centuries, Hampi was the center of one of the largest Hindu empires in the world. At its heyday in the 16th century, the capital was home to one of the most successful kings in India’s history, about half a million people and to numerous significant temples receiving pilgrims from commoners to royalty and from across the empire. Efforts were made to preserve the Hindu centers against Muslim raiders. While many of the buildings have survived in good shape, many of the key statues within the temples we visited had been destroyed or defaced by attackers. The area of and around
Hampi is also significant in Hindu mythology. There are so many gods with so many different incarnations and names – I hope I got everything right! Places of note include (but are not limited to!):
– the spot where Shiva was disturbed in meditation by the god of love, whom Shiva, in his anger, blinded. Thus… love is blind.
– the location of Shiva’s and Parvati’s marriage
– the alleged birthplace of the monkey god Hanuman
– Kishkinda, the country of the monkey people in the epic the Ramayana

Hampi Bazaar

We stayed in the part of town called Hampi Bazaar, in the Gopi Guest House. The description of both the town and its hotel options in Lonely Planet had somewhat negative undertones, but we found both to be charming.
The town is an interesting mix of the sacred (with the incredible Virupashka Temple towering above everything and priests with shaved heads and simple white dhotis and tourist-happy sadhus with painted faces in bright orange and peacock feathered turbans roaming the streets), rural life (streets would be over taken at dusk by goat herds being shepherded home for the night) and alterna-tourism (it reminded me of Mcleod Ganj, in the way Mcleod Ganj reminded me of Boulder in Colorado).
The rooftop restaurant of the hotel, with a perfect view of the Virupashka Temple, was where we spent our time when we weren’t out and about. It was a great spot to watch the daily goings on the streets below and especially of the open air classroom at the Hampi Children’s Trust across the way. They made Roman’s espresso in those awesome old-fashioned pots (mokas) and amazingly actually always had everything we ordered off of their massive menu (impressive because most other budget places usually had only a portion of the menu available).
As cute and colorful as the town of Hampi is, it is also full of poop! (Well, more so than what we’ve gotten used to, I mean.) With so many animals (and people) living in close quarters, I suppose this is bound to happen. The residents of Hampi do regularly wash the streets in front of their homes, and amazingly the town doesn’t smell at all (as opposed, for example, to Jaisalmer, which was also full of animals). Still, there were droppings everywhere, mostly from cows and goats but there were also cats, dogs and monkey to contribute, and we even saw small children taking a squat on the roadside a couple of times. A shoes-off rule was in effect in our hotel room!

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The view of Virupashka temple from our table at Gopi’s rooftop restaurant

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Goats coming home for the night

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Colorful Hampi street

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Houses, hotels and shops often had these simple but beautiful powder designs in front of their entrances. The designs were drawn fresh daily.

Kids

What struck me the most about Hampi was the children in the town. They are a constant, exuberant presence. Even if we couldn’t see them we could hear them outside our window or in the streets below. Sometimes they were with adults, but mostly they were on their own, walking in pairs or groups to school or playing with, caring for, chasing, shouting at, stalking, scuffling with each other in the streets. Seems like a relatively safe and fun place to grow up although it was interesting reading about the Hampi Children’s Trust – it seems to have helped reduce the number of children who might otherwise be working or begging in town.
We also encountered tons of school kids at the various historical sights – apparently this is a major field trip for many schools throughout the state of Karnataka. It’s such an amazing experience interacting with an entire class of students who all want to shake your hand, ask your name and find out all about you with their stock English class questions simultaneously. 🙂 The enthusiasm is inspiring, heart warming and infectious: you can’t wait to shake every single little hand.
Not all kids are so lucky to attend school though. We did meet some working kids, like 12 year old Naga, who was our guide to and at Hanuman’s temple. With teeth stained from regular consumption of paan, he was in some ways already tougher and more mature than I will ever be. Yet at instances he seemed still very much a vulnerable child. A somewhat unnerving juxtaposition…

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Encountering students on school field trips amongst the ruins

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After shaking about 50 hands

Monkeys

Another big highlight were the monkeys in town and in the temples. We probably did as much monkey watching as people watching. The type of rhesus monkey local to Hampi was cute – they all seemed to have similar really dorky-looking, middle-parted hair styles. 🙂 The langurs here were also more social than those we had encountered in the north.
The ultimate of course was feeding the monkeys at the Hanuman temple in Anegundi. It’s a 570 step climb to get to the temple at the top of the hill. We’d probably made it about ten paces when a pack of about five black-faced langurs flew down the hill and practically ripped the bag of mini bananas from Roman’s hand. Naga, our guide, helped to collect the scraps and keep the monkeys a bit more subdued, so Roman actually had a chance to hand out a few bananas. The rhesus monkeys at the temple were much more chilled out, but still fascinating and got as much of our attention as the absolutely stunning views.

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Not the greatest picture, but check out his hairstyle

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Naga feeding the langurs on the steps to the Hanuman temple

Temples, ruins, rocks and river

As I mentioned above, it is difficult to do a proper job writing about the incredible historical temples and sights and landscape. We did a day tour with a certified guide named Hanuman (his name at least easy to remember, as opposed to the multitude of interesting information he shared, which has clearly begun to leak out of my brain 😉 ). We traveled by motorbike between the sites.
After the tour had finished, we still had use of the bike, so we went for a joyride, discovering another, stunning temple at the top of a hill in the process, where music as being chanted and the view of the setting sun was just perfect. We also did a good amount of exploration by foot, which was a great way to experience the landscape more directly.
The area around Hampi is just incredible. Mysterious and massive boulders are strewn into hills with banana and palm groves growing up in between. We also traveled by coracle, a simple, small, bowl-shaped boat fashioned from bamboo, plastic and tar. We traveled about one hour to get to the Hanuman temple through a bewitchingly beautiful landscape. The trip back was at sunset – even more stunning.

Ok, at this point I will give up on my words. Pictures to follow… 🙂

Snap shots from Varanasi

  • The narrow lanes in the old town were filled with all sorts of smells. Some better, some worse. A couple stand out in my memory as unique to Varanasi.
    Apparently the city is famous for its pann, and just about every block had a vendor who inevitably had a beautiful display of the vibrant green leaves on a small counter and would be busy preparing the stuffed delicacy. The smell of the leaves is refreshingly astringent and pervasive but light – a nice contrast to some of the other street smells!
    Also lovely to walk through was an area that had numerous spice shops. Surprising was that the strongest smell in the area was of nutmeg (or maybe something similar?) – I didn’t realize that this was even used in Indian cooking. But it smelled great and made me think of Thanksgiving mashed potatoes. 🙂
  • I just loved the presence of the kites in Varanasi, seeing them soar above the rooftops while their owners remained hidden in the folds of the city, the sound of the paper rippling in the wind. Being able to fly the kite just outside of the burning ghat was such a special thing – simple, pure pleasure. Felt like a kid again – there was really something exhilarating about the tug of the thin string and knowing the tenuous connection I held to this flying bit of paper way up over the water.
  • One night we were on our favorite rooftop restaurant the Dolphin (very average food but the view makes up for it) in the evening. Looking down at the expanse of the Ganges below, we noticed that someone in a small boat had taken it upon themselves to light a whole bunch of the little floating lamps. They must have kept at it for about an hour, and at the end, there was a narrow but bright stream of flickering flames probably a mile long being pulled along by the river’s current.
  • As much as a pervading awareness of the burning ghats was part of my experience in Varanasi, I loved the hundreds of things we saw during our stay that were all about life. During our last full day in the city we saw a number of wedding processions (must have been an auspicious day to get hitched?), which was really fun.
    Each followed more or less the same formation. A cart with a loud, massive generator is at the front of the parade. Thick wires feed backward from the cart to what looks like gaudy, electric chandeliers balanced upside-down people’s heads (see a not-so-great picture at the end of this post)! A marching band in full regalia plays boisterous music. A crowd of guest follows; a handful of these are dancing their hearts out to the music while the rest are just walking. The women are stunning in glittering saris and oversized jewelery including gold nose rings the size of a half-dollar coin. At the end of the procession is the regal-looking groom on a white horse with a child sitting in front of him on the saddle. All in all quite a spectacular sight!
  • I don’t think I need a blog post to help me remember this, but I will include it anyway. The Varanasi sight that still appears in my mind’s eye: A perfectly healthy, young-looking leg sticking from the knee down out of a blazing funeral pyre.

Ok so I am a wimp, and other travel notes

This is a more technical post, just notes following up on the last post and on travel gear and things like that. Updates on where we’ve been and what we’ve been up to to come later…

Off roading

The trip from Agra to Varanasi was uneventful; running late by over two hours it was simply long. So after 15 hours on the train we were looking forward to arrive at the hotel.

Teerth Guest House is the name of our first non-Lonely Planet hotel. The staff has been friendly and helpful; even with the crazy delay there was someone waiting at the station to meet us (with a chicken scratched piece of paper with my name on it, charmingly held upside down 🙂 ).

We are staying in the heart of the old town, which is a maze of narrow alleyways, so the rickshaw could only take us so far and we had to walk the rest of the way to the hotel. Thank goodness the place provides pick up service or it would probably have taken us five times as long to find the hotel as it’s really hidden away at the dead end of one of the smaller alleys.

At 550 rupees a night, it is on the cheaper end of what we’ve been paying. And it shows. The room is a good size and the floors are relatively clean, but the walls and linens are particularly shabby and dirty. This isn’t too bad (hurrah for sleeping bag liners and my pillow cases from home! 😉 ), but we were bowled over by the smell (I am telling myself it smells like spoiled strawberry milk; I’d rather not think about alternative explanations) and the first squat toilet we’ve encountered in a hotel.

We borrowed air freshener from the (overly chatty) manager and that’s helped somewhat, and I’m sure it will be fine for the short time we are staying here, but even Roman mentioned at dinner that he could handle the smell or the toilet, but after such a long journey, adjusting to both was just a bit much. 🙂

The location is good though, and maybe we’ll find other redeeming features over the next few days. And in the mean time, I am doing a decent job cultivating amused compassion for the (wimpy) diva in me who is arching her eyebrow in distaste at the questionable stains on the wall and the bugs that keep landing and ants that keep crawling on the bed. 🙂

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The room at Teerth

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Squat toilet!

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This towel will never be white again

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This guy and his friend love hanging out on the beds

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Air Wick to the rescue! 😀

Transportation booking

For anyone considering traveling in India, I wanted to mention the website Cleartrip (thanks for the tip Kay!). We’ve been using it to book all our trains and flights within India. It’s very easy and convenient and has some nifty features like SMS notification and automatically syncing flight/train info onto our calendars. We had to change some plans today and cancelling the flight we had booked on the site was easy as pie; we even were able to get back most of the cost of the flight. The site also has hotel booking, but the selection is limited and I’ve found the prices are better when I’ve gone direct to the hotel site. But for air and train transport in India, it really is super. http://www.cleartrip.com

Gear check up

11 weeks into the journey, here are some reflections on some of what I’m carrying with me.

As mentioned above, the silk sleeping bag liner is an absolute Godsend. For cleanliness but also for warmth – Teerth for example provides no blankets what so ever so it’s doubly good to have them.

The Osprey packs have been mostly great but I’m disappointed that the zipper tabs on mine have come off less than two months in. It’s probably a reflection of my heavier packing that Roman’s pack hasn’t had the same happen to it, but I don’t think my load is unreasonable… (Roman may disagree 😉 )

I have mixed feelings on my Eastern Mountain Sports (EMS) clothes. The underwear sizing is much smaller than the clothing sizing, so the expensive high-tech underwear I got is all on the tight side. The tech wick shirts are fine, but they feel too big for me – between the large cut and the plastic-y look, they just don’t feel like me so I find that I don’t wear them much. The EMS Compass Pants are great though – comfortable, light, versatile. Love ‘em.

Love my Merrill shoes as well – they have been totally comfortable from day one, no breaking in necessary. An update on footwear – Roman brought me a pair of light, simple flip flops from home and I am loving this extra luxury. They are my ‘inside shoes’, to be worn only when my feet are clean (I have given up ages ago on the notion that my other sandals are at all clean – they have been through way too much) and only in places where there is no dust, mud, cow poo, etc. to walk through. It’s a little thing but I love having “clean” shoes. 🙂

Another new luxury that we have bought here in India is a small set of Phillips speakers. They are travel size but have really decent sound and it’s just great being able to play our music at the hotels – really enhances the ambience of any place we are.

More thoughts on/reviews of gear later…

Desert mis-adventure

I had expected to write at least a post about Diwali by now, but part of travel is plans changing and most of my plans for the past days got entirely sidelined by getting ‘traveler’s illness’ – the standard fever and less-than-elegant stomach issues that I had happily and amazingly had managed to avoid till now but that I kind of figured would catch up with me at some point. 🙂 Now we’re already in Jodhpur, and Diwali is feeling ages away. So, I’ll catch up on Diwali later on.

The timing of falling ill was actually quite good. If you have to be sick, it’s better that it start right after you arrive at the hotel rather than just before or during travel and it was a decent place to be sick – clean, good room, helpful staff. And I am lucky to have such a sweet and patient travel companion too. Roman took great care of me!

We’d left Delhi on Sunday. A short and easy flight brought us to Jodhpur where we decided to go cushy and get a taxi to take us for the long drive to Jaisalmer. We’d been up late and got up early so Roman slept for a lot of the journey but after a short nap, I was up and I loved the ride and was just glued to the window the whole time.

Rajasthan is in the northwest of India, and has a whole different climate and landscape from anything else I’ve seen so far here.

Heading westward toward Jaisalmer, we were driving into a flat landscape of desert scrub. The towns we passed were small but colorful, with women in vibrant clothing and men topped with bright, loosely tied turbans. Between towns we came up behind a cart being drawn on the road. I was confused by the back view of the creature pulling it – the height didn’t seem at all right – until I realized it wasn’t a cow or horse but a camel!

The villages became scrappier and less frequent as we went along. Driving after sunset, there would be periodic dots of light off of the side of the road and less often another small village comprising a handful of buildings, but mostly there was just darkness.

After about six hours, we arrived, found our hotel down a narrow, quiet stone-paved street, had a meal and got ready for bed, which is when the chills started, and after that I was out for the count. We were meant to go on a camel desert safari while we were there, but I was only feeling well again on our last day, so there is so much that we didn’t get to see.

Even for the little time that I did end up spending outside the hotel, I was totally charmed by Jaisalmer. It’s an incredible little city – like something out of another century.

All the buildings and streets are made out of thick blocks of yellow sandstone. Even from my sickroom, it was impossible not to be impressed by the view from my window when the sun lit the place up – you can easily understand why it’s called the golden city. The place looks ancient, like time decided to stand still a thousand years ago. This feeling is reinforced by things like the lack of street lights (it is pretty dark at night, at least where we were staying), the sound of bleating goats being kept outside of people’s homes, and minimal vehicle traffic (due to narrow roads).

The place also has some of the worst smells I’ve experienced in India. Maybe this is due in part to heightened sensitivity to smell from being sick. That being said, I think getting a full on waft from the open sewers might make anyone feel queasy. They also burned a really unattractive incense around the hotel – smelled like a cross between something a really cheap psychic would use and a stuffy old woman’s house. Delightful. 😉

So, I may have been sick and missed out on the desert safari, but I still loved Jaisalmer (despite the smells! 😉 ). I only had time and strength to spend a morning wandering around inside the hilltop fort and seeing the Jain temple within its walls, but I’m really glad I saw at least that. Being inside the fort felt a bit like being in a medieval walled city in Italy, where everything you see is beautiful and every photo you take looks like a post card.

Pictures in the next post… 🙂